What are the New Electronic Skills Required by Lawyers?

March 1, 2000

Tim Travers is a consultant at e-Legal Logistics advising onknowledge management solutions and more efficient working practices. Email tim.travers@btconnect.com.

Last month, two of the leading firms launched their virtual deal rooms on theWeb. Earlier this month, exhibitors at Legal IT 2000 launch the biggest range ofpractice, case, document and knowledge management systems and other electronicgizmos yet seen.

But where does all this leave the typical practising lawyer, whether he orshe works in a large, medium or small firm? There is much uncertainty in allparts of the profession. One thing, however, is very clear: lawyers will need todevelop very new ways of working.

The process has, of course, already started. But there is much still to bedone. This article examines some of the core skills which all lawyers will need.

1. On-screen drafting and reviewing

You are working on a transaction, using either a case management systemand/or a virtual deal room on the Web, and you need to draft or review a legalagreement, which may be 25, 50, 100 or even 200 pages long. Which of thefollowing options will you take:

  • download the documents in paper form, review them and mark them up in the traditional way, put them into a document production system for processing, and then finally publish them back onto the system; or
  • have the courage and ability to do most, if not all, of this, while working on-screen?

Traditionally, when lawyers draft a document from a template, or reviewanother lawyer’s document, they will have their own personal system, built upover years of individual experience, for dealing with the different provisionsof the document, and for ensuring that they all fit together in a way which bestmeets their client’s interests. Each will use a combination of mental rules,written checklist and benchmark against a precedent to achieve the task.

Trying to replicate this on-screen will definitely require new learning and,in the process, new challenges. Automatic document assembly software is alreadywith us. But what about software which can do the opposite? Reviewinganother’s draft on-screen could be described as ‘automatic documentdissection’.

2. Searching

Another of the obvious skills will be mastering the art of searching. When alawyer either drafts or reviews a document, he or she applies a whole series ofmental rules to the process.

Traditionally, it has been only the librarians and others involved in thegathering and delivery of information who have developed the necessary advancedskills in searching. These skill levels will now need to be shared much morewidely.

With Inboxes, Sent Items, Deleted Items, Folders, and other virtualrepositories, such as the online deal room, getting ever more crammed full ofdocumentation, the ability to master boolean and the latest ‘fuzzy logic’search engines will be an absolutely essential skill for every lawyer.

The alternative to having a high level of searching skills will be hundreds,if not thousands, of hits against the wrong information. In particular, inrelation to online drafting and reviewing, the absence of the right skills willmean that the individual will have to rely exclusively on those old mental rulesto do the job, which will, therefore, take longer and increase the costs for allconcerned.

3. Backing-up or synchronising data

Laptops, docking stations, handhelds, mobiles – every lawyer will soon havethe full monty of latest kit. But this is going to throw up new problems.

With the inevitable move towards more off-site working, there will be muchincreased responsibility on each individual lawyer to learn how to undertakeregular back-ups of their data. It will simply not be possible to work onlineall the time.

Equally, synchronising data between all the different machines will alsorequire, first, a higher level of IT literacy, and secondly, and moreimportantly, a highly diligent approach to general housekeeping.

In just a couple of years’ time, I wonder just how many hundreds ofthousands or millions of items will be contained in the firm’s virtual system?Lawyers will need to be ruthless to delete all the rubbish. Virtual ‘springcleaning’ is going to be very hard, because it will be much more difficultactually to see the rubbish to clean. Preserving the best knowledge will be areal challenge for the knowledge managers – and every lawyer is (equally withhis or her colleagues) going to be a knowledge manager.

4. Shift working

The 24×7 world is here to stay, whether we like it or not. True e-commercemeans that the customer has the ability to interact directly with his goods orservices provider at any time. Unless lawyers want to work literally all day andall night seven days a week, they are going to need to work much more in shifts.

This is already common practice among the non-legally qualified staff,whether fax rooms, print rooms, secretarial and document production teams orother support services. But those who provide the legal input, ie the lawyersthemselves, will have to do the same.

This will mean finding new ways of dividing up their responsibilities intomore bite-size pieces, so as to be able to share the load more effectively.

Working in an online team and being an effective team player will, therefore,be yet another big challenge for tomorrow’s lawyers.

5. Training and continuing education

All of the necessary changes in working practices, being forced upon lawyersby the Internet revolution, will require a whole new approach to training andcontinuing education.

Those with the legal knowledge to impart will have a particular difficulty,in that, as a general rule, their apprentices will have more IT skills than theyhave. This will throw up some interesting change management issues. Above all,it will require a different approach to rewarding people, as sharing knowledgeand information will become an ever more fundamental part of the businessprocess.